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Title: Light Switch
Author: Lauren Gallagher
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I knew my relationship was over when I wore the lacy purple lingerie for my neighbor, not my boyfriend.
Pulling a pair of jeans and a plain sweatshirt over the garter, panties, and bra, I knew. Truth and guilt sank deeper into the pit of my stomach with every passing minute. Tonight was the night.
I went into the bathroom to fix my hair and put on a little makeup. Why I bothered, God only knew, but at least it was a way to pass the time before my boyfriend arrived. The antiquated clock radio on the bathroom counter said it was nearly seven thirty. Alec would be here any minute. With any luck and a little courage on my part, he’d finally be gone not long after that.
He’d be gone, leaving me with Matt.
Not that I had any intention of touching Matt. I’d entertained a few fantasies of taking him to bed, but I’d been with Alec since before Matt and I met. Whatever problems we had, I wasn’t about to fool around on Alec. No, I wasn’t going to touch Matt tonight. We wouldn’t even be in the same room.
In the two years that we’d been neighbors, Matt and I had never touched beyond the occasional handshake or hug. We’d become fast friends, but everything about our close friendship was strictly platonic.
When light and time cooperated, however, he watched me from his bedroom window, which was across the narrow alley from my own.
He looked at me. Alec didn’t bother anymore.
It had started innocently enough. A window shade carelessly left open. A change of clothes. A well-timed glance.
Eye contact and startled gasps from both sides of the alley had ended the moment as quickly as it had begun. For days, we were shy and coy, passing on the sidewalk without looking at each other, the accidental voyeur and unintended exhibitionist who’d been caught in the act.
Beneath the embarrassment, though, there lurked a part of me that found a delicious thrill in that momentary exposure. Perhaps I’d imagined the look on his face in that fleeting second before we’d both turned away in a panic, but I was sure his eyes had widened and his lips had parted with more than just the startle of seeing a random topless woman. Wishful thinking or not, I let myself believe he’d looked because he liked seeing me like that. It had been too long since someone had done so, and right or wrong, I liked it.
Had he been some stranger, I’d have been creeped out and probably invested in blackout curtains.
He wasn’t a stranger, though. He was Matt, and after a few days, I left the shade open again. It took almost a week for him to take me up on my unspoken invitation. One night, while I got ready for bed, surreptitious glances in the mirror revealed the ghost of a silhouette in his window, a dark profile against a darker background, and I knew he was there. He was there, and I wanted him to be. I wanted him to see.
I didn’t look. I didn’t even acknowledge him. But that night, and a handful of nights afterward, he was there.
Tonight, standing in my bathroom as I got ready to drop a long overdue bomb on Alec, I sighed. My shoulders fell, and when they did, the dark purple strap peeked out from beneath my reflection’s shirt. I tucked it away, meeting my own eyes and averting them when my cheeks turned pink.
If Alec noticed what I’d worn beneath my casual clothes, he’d turn up his nose and call it trashy. He wouldn’t see it, though. Even if I lost my nerve and let him stay like I had so many times in the last year, tonight would be like any other. In the best case scenario, we’d wordlessly undress ourselves in the dark so we could have silent, passionless sex before going to sleep a thousand miles apart.
At least, if that happened, there would be just enough light spilling in from outside for Matt to see.
I sighed and looked myself in the eye again. This had to stop. Though Matt and I never touched, nor did we ever speak about this in our friendly, unassuming conversations, the guilt was getting to me. This window-to-window affair of glances wasn’t right.
Holding my own gaze, I took and released a deep breath. Yes, I was going to do this. Tonight. Swallowing hard, I touched up a phantom smudge in my smoky eye shadow and fixed a strand of hair that was perfectly in place.
From down the hall, the crunch of a key and click of a deadbolt broke the silence. The front door opened.
I took another breath, shut off the bathroom light, and went out to meet Alec.
He was just shrugging his jacket off when I rounded the corner. With a quick, expressionless glance, he acknowledged my presence, then hung his jacket in the hall closet. “Sorry I’m late. Got held up at the office.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just gave me a little more time to get ready.”
The next look he shot me was a quick down-up sweep with his eyes, followed by a lifted eyebrow that said nothing if not “that is what you call ‘ready?’”
I shifted my weight, gritting my teeth. Keep it up, sweetheart. You’re making this easy for me.
He put his hand on my waist and kissed me lightly. “So, what’s the plan for tonight?” Another down-up glance scrutinized my appearance before he added, “I assume you want to stay in?”
I pursed my lips, resisting the urge to fold my arms across my chest. “Yes, actually.”
“Sounds good.” He smiled. “I think we still have a few DVDs to watch, don’t we?”
“We do.” I hesitated. “But first, I’d like to… talk.”
His eyebrows jumped. “About?”
“Us?” He shrugged with one shoulder. “Well, okay. Let’s talk, then.” He didn’t sound alarmed.
“How about in the living room?” I gestured down the hall and started in that direction without giving him a chance to object. “Do you want something to drink?”
“I think I’m okay, thanks.” He took a seat on the couch with his arm across the back of it, his usual invitation for me to sit beside him. The thought of that arm curling around my shoulders made my skin crawl.
Instead, I sat toward the middle, creating just enough distance to keep him from wrapping his arm around me. Turning to him, I pulled my knee up onto the cushion between us. His eyes darted to my knee, then met mine.
He cleared his throat. “So, um, what’s going on?”
Wringing my hands, I avoided his eyes. “Just, I…” Come on, Kristen, come on. You can do this.
He put his hand on my thigh, dangerously close to the telltale edge of the hidden garter. “Is this about moving in together?”
“Well, no. I mean, not exactly. It’s…” I wanted to scream with frustration. This wasn’t the first time I’d tried to have this conversation with him, and it wasn’t the first time I’d gotten tongue-tied.
Squeezing my leg gently, he said, “Look, if it's too much for you, it’s okay. We don’t have to do it right now.” His tone teetered between empathizing and patronizing, and I couldn’t tell which way it was intended.
Instead of looking at him, I stared at the subtle ridge my garter made beneath my jeans. “Listen, I don’t think we should move in together. At all.”
“You don’t?” At last, a hint of alarm crept into his voice. “But, why not? I mean, after all this time, wouldn’t it make sense?”
“It would, yes.” I swallowed hard and forced myself to meet his eyes. “If we were planning to get married, or—”
He laughed. “Is that what this is about? Well, if you want to start thinking about getting married instead—”
“No, no, it’s not that.”
He cocked his head. “Then, what?”
Wetting my lips, I whispered, “I don’t think we should move in together because I—” Come on, come on, just do it. Get it out there. “I don’t think we should stay together.” Before he even had a chance to react, the weight of the world slipped off my secretly lace-covered shoulders. Finally.
Alec blinked. “You, what?”
“I don’t think this is working.”
“You,” he paused. “You want to end this?” He gestured at me, then at himself.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Well, I guess I can see now why you never wanted to move in together.”
I couldn’t blame him for the bitterness in his tone. We’d been discussing it for over a year, and I’d been sidestepping the issue because I’d been trying to work up the courage to tell him I wanted out. Without meeting his eyes, I nodded.
Alec abruptly stood. While I was relieved to have some breathing room, I was afraid he was going to storm out. As much as I wanted him to be gone, we needed to settle this here and now, not set ourselves up for a period of cooling down, followed by another conversation.
He didn’t leave, though. Instead, he paced between the coffee table and the television, running his fingertips back and forth across his stubbled jaw. “I don’t get it.” He shook his head. “After four years, you just want to up and quit?”
“It’s not exactly a conclusion I came to overnight.”
“Oh really? So when were you planning to enlighten me?”
I sighed. “That’s what I’m doing now. This isn’t something I went into lightly.”
“So what the hell is the problem?” he asked.
“I just don’t think we’re…” I trailed off, searching for the word. “Compatible.”
“Of course we are. We wouldn’t have lasted this long if we weren’t.”
And we shouldn’t have lasted this long. “Look, Alec, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to hurt you, but I’m not happy with things. I’m not happy—”
I sighed again. “Yes. I’m not happy with the way things are with us, and I’m ready to move on.”
“I don’t see how you can be unhappy.”
Of course you don’t. You would have to had to pay attention to pick up on that. “I am.” I struggled to keep my voice gentle and calm. “We want different things out of life. Half the time when we’re talking, we’re fighting.”
“We wouldn’t fight if you didn’t pick fights all the time.”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t pick fights because I enjoy it. If something’s bothering me, I tell you.”
He exhaled hard. “Yeah, and every damned thing bothers you, doesn’t it?”
“No. Not everything. But enough.” I wrung my hands. “I mean, look at our sex life.”
“What? What about it? We have sex more than most couples that have been together this long.”
“Yes, we do,” I said. “But we never try anything new. There’s no variety. It’s just the same thing, over and over and over.”
He set his jaw. “After this long, I think we’ve tried everything, don’t you?”
“No, I absolutely don’t think we have.”
“What else is there?”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to spice things up? Try something unusual? I’ve suggested a few things over the years, but you haven’t wanted to try a damned thing.”
He shrugged. “I’m perfectly happy with things the way they are.”
“To put it bluntly, I’m not.”
Alec blinked. He eyed me, shifting his weight. “So you’re bored with me, then.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’m bored with our sex life.”
“And that’s enough to make you want to call things off?”
“There’s plenty more to it than that, but that was my first clue that things weren’t going so great. I want to try new things. You don’t. So I’m bored to the point of being miserable.”
“I can’t believe you’d end a relationship like this because of sex.” Alec shook his head. “Am I supposed to be some kinky porn star to keep you entertained?”
“Not at all.” I fought to keep my temper in check. “But it would be nice if you at least looked at me once in a while in the bedroom.”
“In the dark?”
“You could turn on the light,” I snapped. “And maybe when you’re done with that, try doing the same to me.” It was only when he stopped pacing that I realized I’d said the words out loud. My heart pounded. I hadn’t intended to go there, but there was no taking it back now.
“You’re unbelievable.” He threw his hands up. “If there was something wrong with us in the bedroom, why didn’t you bring it up a long time ago?”
“I’ve tried. Time and again. And quite frankly, I’m tired of it.”
“Oh, you have?” He folded his arms and cocked his head. “When? How?”
“Maybe all the times I’ve told you I’d like to try new things? I haven’t exactly kept a list of dates and times, but I’ve brought it up more than once.” I paused. “You either don’t want to talk about it, think I’m concerned about nothing, or turn up your nose at whatever I suggest.”
“Well, how about when we went to Cabo last year? I suggested fooling around on the beach, on our balcony, on—”
“I’m not going to fuck you in public.” His lips contorted with disgust. “Jesus, Kristen.”
I rolled my eyes. “And what about the handcuffs we bought two years ago, but have never used?”
“We don’t need to use handcuffs,” he said with a dismissive gesture.
“We don’t need to do a lot of things, but I think it would be fun. That’s the kind of stuff I want to try.”
“So, what? Just having sex isn’t enough for you? Now you have to try all that freaky, kinky shit?”
“Why is it freaky?” I shrugged. “Some of it could be fun.”
“No, no, absolutely not.” He glared at me. “I think you’ve been listening to too many stories from that friend of yours.”
“The one who’s into all that weird crap, yeah.”
I scowled. “He’s told me a few things, yes, but—”
“See? You’ve just been listening to him.” Alec inclined his head, giving me that patronizing look I’d grown to despise. “Normal people don’t do that shit, Kristen.”
Fury coiled in my gut. “Then maybe I’m not normal.”
“Or maybe you’ve just been around that freak too long. I’ve never liked you hanging around him any—”
“I beg your pardon?” I stood, mirroring his defensive stance. “Now you want to dictate who I spend my time with?”
He gave a flippant shrug. “I just don’t like you hanging around that asshole.”
“Why? Because he’s into things you’re not?”
“Or maybe I just don’t like my girlfriend discussing sex with another man.”
“Oh, I can understand that,” I said through my teeth. “She might get ‘ideas’ in her pretty little head about how to fix a lackluster sex life, and she might even try to apply those ‘ideas’ to the relationship she’s trying to save.”
“Or, heaven forbid, she might just suddenly realize there’s more to sex than a little quiet missionary style in the fucking dark.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t think I’m the problem, then.”
“Neither is Scott. I talk to him because he listens to me. Something you stopped doing a long, long time ago.”
“Fine.” He put his hands up. “You know, between that sick fuck and that friend of yours next door, I figured it was only a matter of time anyway.”
My jaw fell open. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“Are you suggesting that—”
“Are you denying it?” he snarled.
“I have never cheated on you.” Guilt twisted in my stomach. It was true, I hadn’t touched another man, but the temptation had been there. One of the first signs this relationship was in trouble was when I caught myself fantasizing not only about the wild things Scott told me, but Scott himself. Then came the voyeuristic tryst with Matt. Though I’d never touched either of them, the guilt was killing me just the same. I’d cheated in mind, if not in body, which was why this needed to end.
“Never?” Alec broke the lengthy silence that had fallen. “Somehow I doubt that.”
My face burned, no doubt making me look even guiltier than I was. “You don’t trust me?”
I clenched my jaw. His constant suspicion and distrust were among the countless nails we’d driven into this coffin. Thank God we were finally going to bury the fucking thing.
“Look, I may be frustrated,” I said. “But I do love you, Alec. I wouldn’t cheat on you.”
“But you’ll leave me?”
“Yes.” The word came so easily, so unflinchingly. “Yes. I need to.”
“You know what? Fine.” He glared at me again. “I’ll go, and you can have all the crazy, freakish sex you want. Mark my words, though. In a few months, after you’ve had a little fun and realize how sick it all is, you’ll regret this.”
“Somehow I doubt that.” Our lackluster sex life was the wedge we’d used to finally cleave our relationship apart, but if it had failed to do so, we had plenty more that would have done the job.
“We’ll see, won’t we?” He shifted his weight. “I don’t suppose you’ll let me take my stuff before you kick me out?”
I nodded down the hall. “Go right ahead.”
With a sharp huff, he stormed past me. I followed him into my bedroom.
Now that he was moving, now that he was doing something besides standing there talking to me, his fury escalated, just as it always did. He jerked open the closet door and went about ripping shirts and a coat off hangers and throwing them onto the bed he’d probably expected to share with me tonight.
“I can’t believe you, Kristen,” he said over his shoulder. “You’re really willing to let all of this go because I won’t be a freak like whatshisname.”
“No. The sex is only part of it.”
He slammed a pair of shoes down and kicked the closet door shut. “Really? So what else is there?”
“Well, this.” I gestured at him. “Every time you get mad, you start throwing shit around, slamming doors, yelling at me—”
“Oh, so now I’m not allowed to get angry?” he shouted, turning on his heel and facing me. “Am I just supposed to sit here like a good little boy and let you tell me I’ve just wasted four years of my fucking life?”
I drew back, folding my arms to keep my hands from shaking. “There’s a happy medium between that and flipping out at—”
“I’m not fucking flipping out at you, Kristen,” he snarled, closing the gap between us. “You can’t expect to say this kind of shit and—”
“And what?” I stepped toward him, and to my great satisfaction, he shrank back slightly. “Am I tied to you for the rest of my life? Am I not allowed to move on if I’m not happy anymore?”
“After all this time, the least you could do is put some effort into fixing it instead of running away.”
I flipped my hands out, palms up. “I’m not going to argue anymore, Alec. I want out, I want you out, so just get your stuff and leave.”
He said nothing, but the rage in his eyes almost made me step back myself. At the very edges of my peripheral vision, he clenched and unclenched his fists. For the first time in four years, I wondered if he might just raise a hand to me, and I could neither draw nor release a breath until he muttered a curse and turned back to gathering his belongings.
On his way out, he stopped at the hall closet to yank his jacket off the hanger and put it over his arm. Then he jerked his key off the ring and tossed it on the table by the door.
“Looks like that’s everything.” He opened the front door. “Unless you had anything else you needed to say?”
I shook my head.
He sneered at me. “Not even good-bye?”
“I think we’ve already said that, don’t you?”
Cursing under his breath, he left, slamming the door behind him. I turned the deadbolt and went back into my bedroom, dropping onto the bed and releasing a long breath. Uncomfortable though it was, that conversation had needed to happen for a long, long time. We’d both made our mistakes over the last few years. We’d both caused our fair share of problems in this relationship. At least now, it was over. Thank God, it was over.
With another long exhalation, I looked at the clock. It was barely eight o’clock. Still plenty of time to go out and grab a drink, vent to a girlfriend, do something other than stay home in this silent apartment. With my newfound freedom came the long overdue ability to go out and take care of some of this sexual frustration. Maybe with someone who knew what he was doing. A one night stand had never been so tempting. I could go out. Or I could turn off the light and go to sleep.
I didn’t go out.
I didn’t turn off the light.
I didn’t go to sleep.
I just took off my shirt and hoped Matt liked purple satin.